'Unheard of': Rivals decry SEC, Big Ten auto byes


The College Football Playoff hasn’t unveiled its first 12-team field yet, but discussions on a 14-team competition beginning in 2026 are already raising eyebrows among Big 12 and ACC coaches.

In the 12-team playoff structure, the five highest-ranked conference champions are guaranteed a spot in the bracket and the four highest-ranked conference winners will earn a first-round bye. But multiple sources told ESPN that one 14-team model that’s currently being considered includes provisions for the SEC and Big Ten to get three automatic qualifiers each — and the only two byes for their conference champions.

“Automatic first-round byes for the Big Ten and SEC is like the NFL saying the Cowboys get a first-round bye since they have more fans than the Bengals,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes told ESPN. “How preposterous is that?”

Dykes’ 2022 Horned Frogs, the Big 12 runner-up, beat Big Ten champion Michigan in a CFP semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl. Under this proposal, Michigan would have a bye as the league’s champion.

Coaches don’t have the power to change the format; that lies with their respective commissioners and ultimately the presidents and chancellors on the CFP board. Their feedback, though, is part of the process along with that of athletic directors and university presidents. Sources have cautioned that nothing is done yet, but several coaches told ESPN they aren’t fans of this new proposal.

A playoff format that guarantees a first-round bye to any team, division or conference before the season starts is unheard of in any sport as far as I’m aware,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said Friday. “Based on the premise proposed, a team could be undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country and still not receive a first-round bye because teams were awarded one before the season even began.”

A source told ESPN this week that balancing the desires of the power wielded by the SEC and Big Ten with their combined 34 teams is a delicate juggling act.

“The balance in the room is how to recognize contributions of the Big Ten and SEC while also being fair and collaborative to the collective room,” the source said.

That naturally includes revenue, with sources saying the SEC and Big Ten could earn between 25% and 30% of CFP revenue. The ACC and Big 12 would follow with between 15% and 20%. That leaves a smaller chunk — somewhere around 6% to 10% for the other leagues and nearly 1% for Notre Dame.

The Big 12 and ACC are afforded two guaranteed spots each in the proposal, one fewer than the Big Ten and ACC. NC State coach Dave Doeren said he’s not in favor of having a set amount of automatic qualifiers for conferences and expressed concern about the potential for a lower-ranked team to displace a higher-ranked one to meet that criteria.

“Automatic first-round byes for the Big Ten and SEC is like the NFL saying the Cowboys get a first-round bye since they have more fans than the Bengals. How preposterous is that?”

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TCU coach Sonny Dykes

“The champions from each of those four deserve to be in, and I agree with that. … After the four champions, then let those teams that have earned that over the course of their season with strength of schedule, their ranking, quality wins and all that be what matters.”

While that may be far down the road, nothing is as alarming as two teams having their own locked-in bye weeks.

“I feel the four conference champs should be treated equally and all should have a first-round bye,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown told ESPN. “It’s hard to be a champion, so it does matter.”

Gundy said the solution is simple.

“We need to let the teams decide it on the field and reward those who are most deserving,” Gundy said.

ESPN’s Heather Dinich contributed to this report.



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